National Endowment for the Humanities

This project combines historical and ethnographic methods in the first comparative study of Salafism as a regional Southeast Asian discourse system. The project emphasizes regional and inter-regional networks as an alternative to the approach common in previous scholarship that places the Middle East at the center and Asia at the periphery or that focuses solely on country-based studies. This project will contribute to the development of new interpretive lenses applicable to other regions and religious traditions.

The term Salafi, means “pious forbearers” in a general sense, is politicized and contested in both academic and Muslim discourse. It is used in reference to diverse ideologies and to movements that aim to maintain or reestablish what each believes to be the original form of Islam. Salafism has had an enormous impact on Muslim discourse and politics since the early 20th century, and today is the driving force behind movements ranging from al Qaeda to quietist groups living pious lives in self-imposed social isolation. The boundaries between academic and confessional scholarship are often blurred by religiously and/or politically motivated scholars seeking to influence academic and policy oriented readerships. The academic literature includes apologetics depicting Salafism as a development oriented puritanical religious reform movement and polemics describing it as inherently violent. Likewise, the policy literature is muddied as analysts and researchers in government agencies and at think tanks often short-circuit analysis of violent groups by using Salafism as a marker for terrorism. This project seeks to clarify this discourse.

The project goals are:

1) to construct a comprehensive inventory of historical and contemporary Salafi movements in Southeast Asia

2) to determine the extent and structure of transnational Salafi networks in the region and the position of these networks in larger global systems

3) to discern economic, religious and social factors at global, regional and national levels influencing the spread of Salafi teachings and shifting political orientations of Salafi movements, including shifts between non-violent and violent orientations.

Project Director and Principal Investigator

Mark Woodward, associate professor of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University